Jonathan Hennessey is author of “The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation” and “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation.”
The Charlottesville City Council narrowly voted this month to remove a nearly century-old statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from an eponymous city park.
This was predictably met with a geyser of outrage. Commenters have excoriated the decision as a naked maneuver to rewrite history, militate against Southern heritage and unfairly malign an honorable and God-fearing military genius and patriot who never defended slavery but instead was only standing up for American principles of states’ rights, liberty and self-government.
The City Council made the right move. Regardless of his position on slavery, the Civil War-era career of Lee nevertheless amounts to the constitutional definition of treason. And no right-minded government within the United States should lionize a traitor.
After all, a monument placed in a public city park is expressive conduct by that city government — the “small government” local representative of The People. To paraphrase the Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, et al. v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., public monuments are meant to convey and have the effect of conveying a government message, an official endorsement.
The particular statue in Charlottesville does not function as a simple reminder or acknowledgment of the history of the commonwealth of Virginia or the Confederacy. The aesthetics of the statue — which place Lee in a lofty position above the viewer and, through the design of the base on which the equestrian figure sits, associate him with the time-honored patriotic symbol of the eagle — express a glorification of Lee as a symbol of American values. It is a clear statement that the city government approves of Lee, not just acknowledges his existence.
Lee was a military officer of exceptional genius, charisma and temperament. It is true that he was no “fire-eater” when it came to defending slavery.
As an officer in the U.S. Army since 1829, Lee had solemnly sworn to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over [him].”
The Confederacy’s justification for secession, no matter what pretext — slavery or the extremely dubious case of tariffs, etc. — cannot be compared with the American Revolution. The pre-1776 American colonists had no representation in Parliament. The Confederate states had always had not only ample but also excessive representation because of the three-fifths compromise. The South had nearly always controlled the presidency, the legislature and the judiciary. By 1860, there had been eight Southern presidents and only seven Northern ones, several of whom, such as Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, did not substantively speak against or lift a finger to oppose slavery.
There can be no doubt: The Confederate states possessed status, clout and equitability of which the American colonists could only dream.
Any concept of a “War of Northern Aggression” is further rendered a fallacy when one considers that even months before Fort Sumter was fired upon, federal property such as the U.S. Mint in New Orleans and the post office in Charleston, S.C., were seized by local and state forces. The capture of a nation’s territory and assets has long been held as a justifiable crime of aggression — and provocation for war.
The Constitution’s silence on the subject of secession still leaves certain grounds for the act: e.g., with a constitutional amendment and with the inherent “right of revolution” referred to in the Declaration of Independence (but not justifiable in the case of 1861, given the previously noted and long-established Southern influence in the federal government).
Even if secession in Virginia’s case had been justifiable, Lee would have been on solid ground to protect the people of his state and conduct a defensive war. However, as soon as he accepted the command position of the Confederacy’s “Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida,” he was effectually fighting an aggressive war against the United States.
Regardless of Lee’s position on slavery, any community preserving transparently worshipful and unqualified statues of him in public spaces is validating and celebrating a cause antithetical to the foundational American ideas of republicanism and popular sovereignty.